Did HIV-Positive Mom's Beliefs Put Her Children at Risk?
Coroner Says 3-Year-Old Died of AIDS; Her Mother and Another Doctor Dispute That
Dec. 8, 2005
From the moment Eliza Jane Scovill came into the world on Dec. 3, 2001, she was strong and feisty -- much like her mom, Christine Maggiore.
Maggiore describes Eliza Jane as "fierce, sweet, intelligent... wildly creative, imaginative."
"She loved music, singing, dancing. She loved her older brother, Charlie," Maggiore said. "I just wanted to live as long as I could to know her, to ... listen to her speak, to bask in her beauty."
In 1992, Maggiore tested positive for HIV. While researching her diagnosis, she became a member of a small, but radical movement proclaiming that everything we thought we knew about AIDS was wrong -- even the most basic premise, that HIV causes AIDS.
She addressed huge crowds at rock concerts, and sparked protests in Africa. Mainstream scientists dismissed her message as dangerous. But a defiant Maggiore was intent on practicing what she preached, refusing to take anti-viral medication like AZT when pregnant.
She and her husband, filmmaker Robin Scovill, had a son, Charlie, in 1998. When she began breastfeeding her son in public, there was outrage that an HIV-positive mother might be literally feeding her child a deadly virus. Evidence shows that breastfeeding increases the risk of transmitting the virus to children by up to 15 percent.
Authorities investigated, but in the end, determined that her son was well cared for and healthy.
When Eliza Jane was born in 2001, Maggiore -- still healthy without anti-AIDS drugs -- again refused anti-viral treatment when pregnant and later insisted on breastfeeding.
"Breastfeeding provides important antibody immunity," Maggiores said. "I wanted to give my children every advantage, and by doing so with Charlie, I raised a beautiful, healthy son. By breast feeding Eliza Jane, I had a beautiful, healthy daughter."
Refusal to Test Her Kids
Maggiore also refused to test her children to see if they were infected with the virus.
"Why would I risk the stigma, the medical label, the toxic drugs? It didn't make any sense to me at all to subject her to that. It's my job as a parent to protect my children, and do everything I can to ensure they lead a long, healthy, happy, productive life," Maggiore said.
But when Eliza Jane was 3 years old, she suddenly became ill. "In late April, she suddenly developed sniffles and a cough," Maggiore said. "I took her to the pediatrician after a few days, because I wanted to make sure she was OK."
In fact, Maggiore was so concerned about what she described as a raspy cough and rapid, shallow breathing, she took her daughter to see two pediatricians in a week.
Dr. Jay Gordon, who was one of three pediatricians who treated Eliza Jane, told "Primetime" there was nothing particularly alarming about the girl's illness.
"When I saw her, she looked like one of the many sick children I saw that week," Gordon said. "You know, she had an ear infection, a fever."
Gordon says when he called back to check up on Eliza Jane a few days later, Maggiore told him she had no fever and was feeling much better -- she was even on her way back to school.
But Eliza Jane did not return to school, and Maggiore became more concerned.
"There was a stirring in my soul. That's about all I can say," she said. "It motivated me to seek a third opinion."
Questioning the Cause of Death
Maggiore turned to Dr. Philip Incao, a holistic doctor from Denver and a board member of Maggiore's organization "Alive and Well." In the last week of her life, he was the only care provider to see Eliza Jane.
"What he found was the same thing that everybody else found -- clear lungs, no throat infection," Maggiore said.
Incao told "Primetime" that Eliza Jane seemed only "mildly ill." "She was relatively mildly ill ... no way I considered her in danger," Incao said. "She did not act as a patient acts if she's severely ill or in danger."
When her earache didn't improve Inaco prescribed amoxicillin -- a common antibiotic frequently given to children.
It was the first time in Eliza Jane's life that she would take any prescription medicine. And Maggiore says after just the third dose her daughter's "complexion went from rosy to kind of ashen. She felt cold and she was agitated. She was looking around the room nervously."
Eliza Jane had been sick for three weeks, when just before midnight on May 15, the girl collapsed.
"My husband was on the phone with the pediatrician and I started screaming, 'Robin, she stopped breathing!'" Maggiore said through tears. "She collapsed and stopped breathing ... right in front of my eyes."
Eliza Jane was rushed to the hospital, where a team of doctors labored through the night to save her. At 5:40 a.m., Eliza Jane, just 3 ½ years old, was pronounced dead.
Maggiore believed an allergic reaction to amoxicillin killed Eliza Jane.
"I believe the unfortunate irony in this situation is that the one time that we were asked to and that we complied with mainstream medicine, we inadvertently gave our daughter something that took her life," Maggiore told "Primetime."
But when the coroner's report came out four months later, it said the cause of Eliza Jane's death was pneumonia due to AIDS.
Dr. James Ribe, the Los Angeles Coroner's Office senior deputy medical examiner, called the findings "unequivocal," but Maggiore dismissed the autopsy as being about politics -- not science. She believes the investigation suddenly changed course once the coroner's office learned about her HIV status and views.
"I did not have a good feeling, nor did our pediatrician, about the coroner asking questions about my book, about what happens when you Google my name," Maggiore said. "That didn't leave us with the feeling that this was going to be the professional, medically sound, unbiased investigation that we hoped for."
Despite seeing a tape of Ribe explaining his findings -- showing HIV-related encephalitis in her brain and pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) in her lungs -- Maggiore refused to believe her daughter died of AIDS.
So Maggiore sought a second opinion from toxicologist Mohammed Al Bayati -- who sits on the advisory board of Maggiore's organization and is the author of a book called, "Get the Facts: HIV Does Not Cause AIDS."
His findings? "I am very confident Eliza Jane did not die as a result of AIDS," Al Bayati said. "She died as a result of an adverse reaction to amoxicillin."
"Primetime" showed Al Bayati's report and the coroner's findings to an independent medical examiner -- who agreed with the autopsy results: AIDS, not amoxicillin, killed Eliza Jane.
Maggiore insisted to "Primetime" she wanted to know the truth about her daughter's death. "I want to know the truth," she said. "I want to know it deep in my heart."
Authorities wanted the truth, too. The Los Angeles County Police Department began an investigation into Eliza Jane's death.
Capt. Ed Winter, who heads up investigations for the L.A. County's Coroner's office, said, "[We] felt there was something being held back, and there was conflicting information," he said.
Maggiore admits that she did not volunteer her HIV status to the cororner or the hospital where Eliza Jane was treated.
"I wanted an unprejudiced evaluation of my daughter," she said.
It is a haunting question: Could Eliza Jane's death been prevented if she was tested for AIDS? Maggiore denies that she was in any way negligent in the care of her daughter.
"I acted with love in my heart, to the best of my knowledge and research, and my ability to protect and nourish her," she said. "We followed pediatricians' order at all times, in every instance, in every moment."
Dr. Incao -- the last doctor to see the girl alive -- says there were no signs of symptoms of AIDS.
But at least one pediatrician who treated Eliza Jane wonders now if he had all the information necessary to treat her appropriately. "If I had the knowledge that I have now, I would have asked the parents to have the child tested for HIV," said Dr. Jay Gordon.
Those are regrets Maggiore says she does not share. "Do I have regrets about not testing my daughter? No," she said. "None of what has happened to me, and to my family, has shaken what I know to be correct and true about science and medicine and my experiences."
Eliza Jane's big brother Charlie is now 8 years old. Fearing the state would take him away, Maggiore and her husband had him tested for HIV several times. The results were negative.
Nancy Dubler, a bioethicist at Montefiore Hospital in New York, believes there was across-the-board failure in this case.
When an HIV-positive mother won't test her child, Dubler said: "I would say that the next time a child is born to an HIV-positive woman and that woman refuses to have the child tested and treated if positive, that the state has a moral obligation to proceed immediately down that path."
For now, the police and district attorney in Los Angeles will only confirm that the criminal investigation into Eliza Jane's death is ongoing.
Eliza Jane would have turned 4 years old this past Saturday, and criminal charges or not, Maggiore is already suffering -- by each day that passes without her daughter. "Another sunset without my beautiful girl with me," Maggiore said.
You can find out more about Christine Maggiore's side of the story at www.justiceforej.com.